The next generation of robots may not rob us of our jobs after all. In fact, they may actually help us become better at our work.
Or at least that’s how Jim Lawton, the chief product and marketing officer at Rethink Robotics, pitches the machines his company is making.
Historically, traditional robots have taken humans out of the loop in the workplace replacing employees as a cheaper alternative. But collaborative robots — which are the next wave of of machines — are all about enabling humans to do a better job.
Rethink Robotics builds these next-gen robots which are created to work alongside humans.
They are safe, social, easy to program and eager to learn from humans.
“What is so exciting about this next generation of robots is the ability for humans to start interacting with their environment again,” Lawton told Tech Insider in an interview. “There is a real opportunity to just think differently about automation. So we are approaching this problem in a fundamentally different way.”
The company’s robot Baxter began shipping to manufacturers last year and its next gen robot Sawyer will begin shipping this Fall.
It’s not unusual for employees to get nervous when they see Rethink delivering a robot, Lawton said. Often, workers express concern over whether or not they will be replaced by the machine. But after working with the robot for some time, workers often find that it’s actually helped improve their work, he said.
How collaborative robots could make work better
Traditionally, robots are custom built to do one job and must be programmed specifically for that task.
But Rethink’s robots are unique in that pretty much anyone can teach these bots how to work because they learn by a person showing them how to do a task. A user just presses a button on the robot to make it go into learning mode, and then shows it how to do a repetitive task.
“The next wave of robots, you won’t program them, you will show them what to do,” Lawton said. “The robot is the interface, we interact with the robot directly. You don’t interact with a computer or any kind of any other device. You are interacting with the robot directly.”
Lawton sees these more human-like, user-friendly robots as a way to free humans up from mundane tasks so that workers can create improved processes in their work environment.
For example, a factory worker working on an assembly line all day can experiment with how to make that processes better by teaching the robot different ways of performing the task. This helps increase efficiency and enables workers to constantly improve their work environment.
“The old way of thinking about automation is really inhibiting the creativity of humans from being able to improve their environment,” Lawton said. “In the future, we will have manufacturing environments that enable the capabilities of human workers as opposed to preventing them. So if I’m able to harness the talent and the minds of the people operating in the plant, my plant is going to be more competitive than the guy who is not doing that.”
Human-like robots mean safer work environments
Another advantage of collaborative robots is that they are safe for humans to work alongside.
Older generations of robots are dangerous to put around humans because they don’t have the technology to sense their force or changes in their work environment.
But Rethink’s robots, like other collaborative robots, can work directly with humans because they have the necessary vision systems and sensory technology to understand their surroundings.
Rethink’s machines even take this a step further and feature anticipatory artificial intelligence enabling it to mimic the behaviours of a humans by signalling with its face and body its next move.
In other words, if a robot is going to move its arm to a certain place, it will first look at the location it plans to move to signal to humans that it’s about to do something.
How robots will change work
While a big concern these days centres around robots taking jobs, Lawton argues that people’s’ jobs will just begin to change. He sees robots as tools that are making humans more productive.
In a new paper from London’s Center for Economic ResearchGeorge Graetz, of Uppsala University, and Guy Michaels, of London School of Economics found that industrial robots have actually driven labour productivity and economic growth.
The researchers took a look at manufacturing robots in use in a different countries and found that countries with the most robots in use did not suffer substantial manufacturing job losses. Instead, productivity increased.
Brookings Institute used the data to see how many jobs each economy would lose if the decline in manufacturing jobs was proportional to increase in robots and found that jobs losses were actually way less than expected using this metric.
While robots may be getting smarter and more prevalent, Lawton said that human jobs aren’t going away anytime soon because they still have a leg up on machines.
“Humans have what robots will never have and that is free will and agency and the idea that I can think about things in an ad hoc way,” he said.
“Humans can think about the context of their environment and the potential ways of making it better.”